Until Wright's Native Son, most black fiction was pretty much limited to historical, period pieces. Whether it belonged to the plantation tradition or the Harlem school of literature, most of it could be classed as only historically interesting. A primary reason for this is that the audience those writers addressed themselves to was middle class and "liberated" from the struggles of the poor. Since such an audience asks to read about itself, and since its spokesmen have to be "liberated" too, the writing of that time was largely restricted to a facade, a falsification of black life. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this rule Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes but as a rule, middle-class writing, black and white, was designed to entertain, not to disturb, its middle-class reader.
Therefore, when Richard leaves the South in Black Boy, it marks a turning point not only in his own life, but in the history of black literature. Much of the theme of his autobiography is summed up in his essay, "The Ethics of Living Jim Crow," in which he describes with awful honesty the effects of the caste system on black people. No one before Wright had written of this subject as he did, and, consequently, the essay had a revolutionary value.
Wright explained how it is necessary for a people living in a society founded on free enterprise and individualism to have a background of education in one's own personal values and free access to the surrounding society. Without those qualities, and without a history of free choice, black Americans are forced to remain in close-knit, pre-individualistic groups; there, the possibility of survival is even greater than it would be if each person tried to make it on his own.
The title of Black Boy sums up the whole pre-individualistic ethic or the ethics of living Jim Crow. Obviously, Wright did not think of himself as a black boy. The very term is a social judgment, not just used by white society but inherited by the black folk in Richard's life. Richard's family saw him as bad ("black"), just as the whites did, because he expressed himself as an individual. At the same time, he was viewed as a boy, one who waited for and obeyed orders before he acted. The irony of this is that Richard quite clearly never did have a childhood, in the sense of a time free of responsibility or fears. His sensitivity to experience made him a man almost at birth. In the pre-individualistic, Jim Crow society he grew up in, Richard was considered evil and irrepressible.
It is important to view his autobiography in historical terms in order to understand its full significance. With the arrival of the first slaves in the seventeenth century came a culture that would be the ultimate test of the American dream. The first slaves brought with them from Africa many different ways of worshipping God and different idioms, but a common language. They also brought with them a life style which emphasized community before individualism. Under slavery these people, with their strong cultural backgrounds, were forced to absorb many of the Western customs, and they consequently evolved a culture which was completely unique the Afro-American culture.
The devastating consequences of slavery were many, and in the two centuries preceding the Civil War, black people were integrated into society only by rape. They were disbanded, sold, and castrated by their masters. Whatever sense of community had come to these shores with them was subjected to the severest tests. One of the inevitable results was a family structure not based on blood ties, but on a larger sense of brotherhood; another result was an almost complete sense of alienation from white society. Yet another offspring of slavery was an original art form the Blues which incorporated African cultural forms (both linguistic and musical) with Western forms.
It wasn't until the beginning of the twentieth century that the first Blues recordings were made and that extraordinary art form was discovered by white America. The Blues had traveled underground for many years. During the Civil War, the Blues singers were like modern troubadours traveling from city to city. These poets described the effects of the war, its aftermath, the liberation of the slaves, and the work on the railroads; they described the cities and the lives within them. The songs were necessarily sad, with themes of abandonment and loneliness. The form of the Blues has since gone through many transformations, but it is always recognizable by its tone of irony and sorrow.
When Richard Wright was growing up and when he moved North, the Blues had come up from underground and set the pace of the times. Louis Armstrong, Mamie Smith, and Bessie Smith all sang of that era and its significance for the many blacks moving into the northern ghettos. Unlike their rural predecessors Sonny Terry and Big Bill Broonzy the new Blues singers dealt primarily with urban life.
Therefore, just as the spiritual music of the South inspired Wright, the Blues influenced the tone of his recollections. His portrait of his father is particularly relevant to that era, as is his picture of his mother, her sickness, and his grandfather's death. These are standard examples of black experiences in the beginning of this century.
And just as the Blues is expressed as a tone in Black Boy, folklore is expressed as a style. Every culture has its folklore, which precedes and often influences the first stages of its literature. Folklore consists of stories taken from real experience, common to the group involved, and passed on by word of mouth until the story reaches the proportion of legend. Like a joke, its origins are unknown. Much of its effect is sustained by the use of dialect and references to particular group rituals. Folklore is intended to be understood only by the people in the given group, and therefore it has a cultish quality that is not conducive to reaching large audiences of people.
In Black Boy and certainly in a great deal of literature that came before it, folklore is a natural offspring of the social climate. Since black people were set apart from the large body of Americans, Wright expected much of his autobiography to be instantly understood by blacks, but only intellectually grasped by whites. In the incidents related to his family life in particular, this is the case. There are certain things he doesn't bother to explain because he assumes his reader will understand what he is saying. For this reason, the love between him and his mother and brother is not mentioned. Instead, he talks about only the qualities of his home life which disturb him. He takes it for granted that his black reader will know that affection exists between them. But the absence of its expression gives the book a barren and cynical tone which whites sometimes mistake for general ill will.
It must be said that this question of familial love has been a preoccupation of many other black writers. One of the many effects of slavery and pre-individualism was the repression of love between members of one family. Love was dangerous because at any time the family might be broken apart. It was dangerous because it involved an acknowledgment of individual worth. If you love your people, you are going to fight for them. "Black is beautiful" is revolutionary and dangerous to whites for just this reason. Its absence among the blacks in Wright's childhood is not surprising therefore.
The absence of love in his book will not confuse black readers. Just as the Blues is expressed as a tone of nostalgia and irony, the book's very existence is an act of love. For while it seems that Wright is interested only in escaping from his home, there is ambiguity in his flight. He is, as an artist, obsessed by his own origins. The fact that he finally left the United States for good did not mean that he was in spiritual, as well as physical, exile. As a novelist, or a fictional historian, he had to have distance in order to view his subject with some measure of sanity and proportion. Consequently he wrote of urban violence endemic to America with a clarity that shocked the nation. He didn't ask anyone to make excuses for his attitudes. They spoke for themselves, and many Americans primarily white were appalled by his work and were unable to face its truth.
One reviewer for the Atlantic Monthly reacted to Native Son saying: "Hatred, and the preaching of hatred, and incitement to violence can only make a tolerable relationship intolerable." As if the relationship between blacks and whites were tolerable. Indeed, it was tolerable to whites, which is an indication of the social condition that caused Wright to leave his own country.
Black writers, on the other hand, found in the legendary tale of Bigger Thomas an immediate reality. He became the figure that would dominate their work for a long time to come. In his, and Wright's, monumental stature, black writers found a truth they could address themselves to. Blacks would see themselves as the moral conscience of America after Native Son, although none would have such a single-minded approach to its resolution as Wright. Like Dreiser, who wrote of urban violence with a simplicity usually found in allegory only, Wright is a distinctly American product.
Naturalism, which is not the celebration of nature it sounds like, served the post-Depression writers well as a style of writing. Stark documentation of facts, the use of legal language to sum up social attitudes, and the absence of emotional values distinguished the writing of that time. For a black writer, it involved a vision of race war in America, in which all blacks are right and all whites are wrong. The simplicity of this judgment took a completely documentary form and was therefore all the more shocking.
Wright's successors Ellison and Baldwin would have a more complex and emotional approach to the race war. Unlike Wright, they would not view the black man's life as one of absolute despair, but would uncover joy and love as well. Only the most masochistic white reader would not be upset by Wright. It is not so evident in Black Boy, but in his later work, his declaration of race war is outspoken. Since he dealt with characters as historical, nearly legendary, forces, their actions are entirely ruled either by historical rage or historical guilt. In that sense they are not realistic. They act out a moral drama based on historical memory. The white people no matter how innocent in fact they might be are objects of justifiable revenge. The black people no matter how immoral their individual acts might be are historically justified; they are always right.
In Black Boy, the whites who enter the story are invariably mouthpieces for southern racism. They are, in a sense, as much victimized by the institution of racism as are the blacks. They do not emerge as individuals, but as contemptible types, entirely ruled by prevalent attitudes. Public opinion rules them as much as it does blacks. Richard's difficulty in assuming the role of the passive victim makes him dangerous to both communities. To identify oneself with a particular race and thereby judge one's actions according to the history of that race was never an outstanding feature of Western individualism; yet it was a well-concealed fact that whites did think of themselves in racial terms, especially when threatened by foreigners.
Wright might be criticized for being simplistic in his judgments, but the reader must confront at all times the conditions that produced such a writer a writer so thoroughly American and in the light of those conditions accept and reckon with his presence. Black Boy explains what those conditions were and, in doing so, introduces Richard Wright to America as a human fact.